Welcome to the Third World

Bob Harper created a universe from trash, using only his hands, his heart, and a load of imagination

Edward, Harper's other guest this morning, stood for a moment, his brow furrowed as he simultaneously studied Third World and lit a cigarette.

"I ain't seen you in a while," Harper said as Edward stepped in front of him.

"I just got out of the hospital," Edward answered. Then he took another drag on his cigarette. "Heart attack. You got a couple of dollars, man? I'm hungry."

Harper reached into his pocket and drew out two bills. Harper doesn't have much money, and he doesn't like handing it out, but he wanted Edward to move on and leave him in peace.

"Thanks," Edward said. "I ain't ate nothing all day." Then, with a sweeping gesture toward Third World, "I see you built it up again."

Not wanting to talk, Harper nodded in agreement, and Edward shuffled on toward Scott Street.

"I knew Bob would build again," Joseph boasted from inside Third World.
Yes, build again. This is Harper's second Third World. The first, over a decade in the making, was destroyed one Sunday evening in January 1992. While the devout Harper was attending church at the nearby Christian Home Baptist Church, a gas heater exploded in the small house he and his mother then shared on the Third World lot. Speaking as laconically as ever, Harper remembers running from the church when told "your house is on fire."

He found the entire neighborhood in the streets, screaming "she's in there" at the firefighters. The leaping flames gave what remained of his Third World structures -- the firefighters had destroyed some as they worked their way toward the fire -- an eerie, backlit glow.

Inside the house, fireman Jackie Hanson was trying to save Mrs. Harper from what he remembers as "the worst fire of my life." Hanson found her unconscious on her bed, "with third-degree burns over 70 percent of her body." Hanson weighs 145, she weighed nearly 280, and as he tried to carry her out on his back, "the fire was ripping. The roof was burning, and the floor was falling in." Spiked with adrenaline, he managed to leap out a window with her. But Mrs. Harper didn't survive. She succumbed to her burns, dying two days later.

That first Third World apparently died with her. Harper had started his original vision with the house itself. Now, all of that was gone. There was some talk at the time that Harper's obsession with building had cost his mother her life, that his art had physically come between the firefighters and the fire. But Captain Clifford Reed, who supervised the fight, rejects that notion. The clutter "slowed us down," he agrees, "but Mrs. Harper couldn't have been saved."

The local art community was stunned at both Harper's personal tragedy and the destruction of an absolutely inimitable art environment. And a blighted, officially neglected neighborhood had lost one of its emblems of local genius.

What do you do when your labor of 12 years lies in ruins? When you're nearly 60 and your injured back (Harper receives disability for an accident he suffered at a grocery store job) no longer allows you to lift the heavy objects -- the stuff of your art -- that you find alongside the road? For Harper, the answer was as simple as the question. You rebuild.

Work such as Harper's (if a category "such as Harper's" actually exists) inevitably raises the simple question: why? It's a lot of work, done largely in obscurity; you're likely to be considered crazy for doing it; and whatever reward you do receive won't buy you anything -- not a less deadly heating system, not a tank of gas for your old truck. In a Latin or purely African culture, this question might not carry such weight, but in the pragmatic U.S.A., that why can pierce like a scream.

Maybe it's a sign of infantilism to keep asking why. It's surely a mark of pragmatism to try to glean some useful understanding from Bob Harper's desire.

But when he says, "I build for the Lord. Everybody can look at what I build and know that there is a God up above, because I get my ideas from the blue sky," it makes sense, but it doesn't satisfy. Harper is a deeply, if quietly, religious man, a sort of Third Ward, Third World saint. Fine.

But if Harper has a traditionally religious message, then why does his work have so few overt markers of God? There's a cross in the fence at the entrance, and not much else.

I kept looking for signs of easy comfort. One neighbor told me, "His mother is still alive there." That sounded helpful, but when I asked Harper if this notion had occurred to him, he merely shrugged and answered, "Maybe so."

Of his mother's death he says, "It hurt real bad. It sure enough did." But his voice doesn't betray any lingering pain. Maybe he's speaking from that very private place inside him that tells him what and how to build. Maybe he shows his grief in a different way. But anything I say about Harper will have to be prefaced with that "maybe." He's in the unpaid business of creating, not solving, mystery.

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